Editors' note: The review and ratings have been updated since the original publish date to reflect changed features and bug fixes from various software updates and also includes final battery results.
We haven't seen so much buzz over a phone since the iPhone, but for the past six months, all eyes have been on the Palm Pre. Introduced at CES 2009, the Palm Pre quickly became the most anticipated phone of the year, not only for what it meant for Palm and Sprint--two companies struggling behind their competitors--but also for what the device promised. The multitasking features, the notification system, a physical keyboard, multitouch screen--all of these factors combined made it, in our opinion, the most legitimate rival to the iPhone yet.
Now, here we are, six months later and the Palm Pre is finally ready for release. We've spent the past few days poring over every detail of the device (without Palm's or Sprint's supervision) and we're prepared to answer the all-important question: does it live up to all the hype? Well, we'd say our thoughts on the Palm Pre echo those we had for the T-Mobile G1. There are some hardware and performance issues and we're concerned about a few missing features, but we walked away impressed with the Palm WebOS.
The tiny QWERTY keyboard isn't going to draw any praise, nor is the lack of an expansion slot. We're also disappointed that the Pre lacks some basic functions, such as video recording and voice dialing, though Palm has said these features can be added later through an over-the-air update. Battery life is also a concern, as the smartphone only lasted about a day on a single charge, which, in all fairness, is about the same as the iPhone. All that said, the Pre's "Deck of Cards" multitasking functionality and notification system are what make it special and they are areas where the Pre beats the iPhone or any smartphone on the market right now. In addition, personal-information management is completely changed (in a good way) with the Synergy feature.
While the Pre finally gives Sprint customers something to be excited about, it won't please everyone. Early adopters, gadget lovers, and consumers who need or crave more functionality from their cell phone will be well-served by the Pre, though there is a little bit of a learning curve to the device. Also, because of the battery life and that slight bit of sluggishness, we'd don't think it's the best device for business users or road warriors.
Also, despite some of the monthly savings of Sprint's data plans, we don't expect that many customers will switch to Sprint just to get the Pre, especially in light of the news Verizon and AT&T will eventually get their own models and a crop of hot, new phones on the way.
Starting from the ground up, Palm has really made a solid and smart platform and one that doesn't just match the capabilities of its competitors but offers something more in its multitasking and personal information management capabilities. Palm might not have completely knocked it out of the park with the Palm Pre, but at least it's back in the game, and we look forward to more WebOS devices the future.
The Palm Pre is available starting June 6, for $199.99 after a $100 mail-in rebate and with a two-year contract on Sprint's Everything Data plan or Business Essentials with Messaging and Data plan. In addition to Sprint stores, the Pre will be sold at Best Buy, RadioShack, and some Wal-Mart Stores.
The Palm Pre's design is unlike that of any smartphone we've seen to date, but if we had to give a point of comparison, we'd say it somewhat resembles the HTC Touch. It's a bit like a pebble, with its smooth, black, lacquered finish and rounded edges, and, like the iPhone, Palm keeps it simple by keeping external controls to a minimum.
The face of the device only has one control: a center button that will take you back to the Deck of Card view. The center key is a bit deceiving in that it looks similar to a trackball navigator, so there were times where, out of habit, we would try to navigate a page by trying to scroll up and down using the center button, but you can only press it like a key. On top of the unit, there's a power button, a silent ringer switch, and a 3.5-millimeter headphone jack, which we're always happy to see. The left side features a volume rocker, while the Micro-USB port is on the right. Finally, on back, you'll find the camera, flash, speaker, and removable battery.
In its closed state, the Pre measures 3.9 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide by 0.6 inch thick and weighs 4.76 ounces. It fits nicely in the palm of your hand and is certainly more pocket-friendly than the iPhone. Some have worried about the durability of the phone, since it's made of plastic. We didn't throw it off a building or anything, but we thought it felt quite solid, not cheap or toylike. The only negative things we'd note are that the phone is a smudge/fingerprint magnet and the slider design can feel a bit rickety at times.
However, the sliding mechanism is smooth, and the screen clicks securely into place when pushed up. There's a bit of a curve to the phone in its open state, and we preferred keeping it that way when talking on the phone, since it felt more comfortable against our cheek.
We have to say the Pre's display is one of the main highlights of the phone. It measures 3.1 inches diagonally, so it's smaller than the iPhone's and some other touch-screen devices, such as the T-Mobile G1 and the Samsung Omnia, but what it lacks in size, the Pre makes up for in quality.
The 24-bit color HVGA display is vibrant and sharp with its 320x480-pixel resolution. Images, text, and Web pages all looked amazing. We'd say it's on par with, if not just slightly crisper looking than, the iPhone's screen. Under the Preferences menu, there are settings to adjust the screen's brightness and backlight time. You can also customize the phone with preinstalled wallpaper, or use your own images and set them as your background.
The Pre's display has a built-in accelerometer so the screen orientation will automatically change from portrait to landscape mode when viewing photos, videos, and Web pages. The accelerometer is fast and changes pages without any lag. There's also a proximity sensor, which will automatically turn off the display when you lift the smartphone to your ear for a phone call.
The capacitive (meaning it responds to the touch of a finger) touch screen is pretty responsive. There's no haptic feedback, but white rings will appear around an icon or menu item to let you know that the screen has registered your touch. To scroll through lists, you can drag your finger along the screen or give it a quick flick to get through longer lists. The onscreen dial pad is simple, with large buttons, and it includes shortcuts to voice mail and your call log. Of course, you can also just use the Universal Search function and start typing a contact's name to get quicker results.
The Pre's screen is multitouch, which is a fairly big deal since the iPhone has long stood in a class of its own with this functionality--but not anymore. Like the iPhone, the Pre lets you zoom in and out on pages by pinching your fingers apart or close together; double-tapping the screen will also achieve the same task. In addition, swiping left to right on an item, such as an e-mail or call log number, will give you the option to delete it.
To copy, cut, and paste, just tap on the screen to place the cursor at the start of what you want to copy/cut, press the orange key on the keyboard, and drag your finger across the desired text. You can do this anywhere on the screen, by the way; it doesn't have to be right over the words. Once you've selected everything, tap the upper-left corner of the screen to bring up the drop-down menu with your copy, cut, and paste options.
Below the screen, there's a gesture area where you can perform a couple of tasks, which we outline in the section below. Two small LEDs and the center button will illuminate white to indicate that it has registered your command.
User interface and navigation
We'll say it outright: the Palm Pre isn't the most intuitive device to use, at least at first. When you fire up the smartphone for the first time, there's a brief animated tutorial to familiarize you with the various gestures, such as swiping right to left in the gesture area to return to the previous page. The gestures are also illustrated in the quick start guide, but even so, it takes some time to learn all the various commands.
The Home screen looks easy enough to understand, with a simple tray along the bottom that includes shortcuts to the onscreen dialer, contacts, e-mail, calendar, and the main menu (aka Launcher). Pressing the Launcher icon will bring you to all your applications and settings. It consists of three panels that you can swipe from left to right (and vice versa), and each panel is dedicated to a more general category. For example, the first panel includes all the core functions, such as messaging, Web, multimedia, Google Maps, task list, and so forth; the second panel is focused on applications and Sprint services; and the third panel features the phone's various settings and options. The user interface, in general, is very sleek and fresh, and provided smooth transitions. Also, it's more inviting and engaging than Google Android, which will make it more appealing to consumers.
To launch a program, you simply tap an icon, and once you're in an application, you can tap the upper-left corner of the screen to open any relevant menus for that particular app. Of course, the beauty of the Palm Pre is the multitasking capabilities, so you can simply launch another program without having to exit off the current one. To do this, drag your finger from the gesture area up to the screen and you'll see the home screen tray appear in a cool little wave; from there, you can move your finger to one of the dedicated shortcuts or open the Launcher for a full list.
If you want to return to any running apps, a press of the center button will bring you to your Deck of Cards view where you can simply select the card you want. If you're wondering why the feature is called Deck of Cards, it's because each application is presented in a card window and you can then shuffle through the open cards. You can drag and drop cards (or rearrange the order of apps in the Launcher) by pressing and holding the item until you see a halo around the card and then you're free to move it, but it's not like with the T-Mobile G1, where you can drag and drop icons onto the main home screen. When you're done, you can flick the card upward and that will close out the program.
As you can see, there's a lot to learn, but after a couple of hours, we felt more comfortable and familiar with the gestures. Obviously, with more use, these commands will become even easier and soon you won't even have to think about it, but when comparing the out-of-the-box experience of the Pre with that of the iPhone, the iPhone definitely wins for its ease of use. That said, we give props to Palm for its connection manager. By simply touching the upper right-hand corner of the screen, you get instant access to the Pre's connection settings--Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplane mode--instead of having to go through several menus as on the iPhone.
The lack of a physical keyboard was a big reason why some people chose not to buy the iPhone. There will be those who argue that the iPhone's onscreen keyboard is fine and just needs some getting used to, which is fair enough. However, there are also some who desire physical keys and don't want to give them up (present company included), so it was like a dream when the Palm Pre was announced at CES 2009 with its full QWERTY keyboard. Fast-forward to now, where we actually have the device in hand and we have to say, we're a bit disappointed. Similar to the Palm Centro and Palm Treo Pro, the jellylike buttons are quite small and there's very little spacing between them. In addition, the top row of keys runs right up against the edge of the open cover, so it's easy to bump into it when typing.
I was still able to type faster using the Pre's keyboard than the iPhone's, but I also have small hands so it was easier for me to punch the keys. However, I can definitely see people with larger thumbs having problems and, unfortunately, there's no onscreen keyboard option at this point. I took a quick poll of some co-workers and all agreed that the keyboard was small; several called it a deal breaker, but a majority said they could get used to it after a while.